A Chest-On-Stand in the Rocky Hill Collection

The chest-on-stand formerly in William “Bill” K. du Pont’s collection is, as both Sotheby’s catalogue entry (lot 505) and Pook & Pook’s catalogue entry from October 2013 say, the only example of this form with any sort of inlay. Swirling light-wood stringing terminating in single and clusters of four dots is present on all of the drawer fronts and the top.

Chest-on-stand. The William K. du Pont Collection. Photo courtesy Sotheby’s.

Pook & Pook gave a date of 1730 for the chest, Sotheby’s dates the chest circa 1735. However, nothing about the chests construction or design necessitates a date of manufacture later than circa 1715. The earliest chest inlaid with stringing and clusters of four dots is dated 1706. Two chests of drawers likely owned by Sarah (married 1711) and Martha Ogden (b. 1689 – married c. 1710) of Whiteland Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania, were probably made around the time of their marriages. The Philadelphia Museum of Art owns a closely related chest-on-stand they date “c. 1710-1725” attributed to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The PMA states that the secondary woods in their chest are “cedar, white pine, tulip poplar.” This is incorrect, there is no white pine or tulip poplar present in the chest. The drawer sides and backs are hard pine, the drawer bottoms are Atlantic white cedar.

Chest-on-stand. Delaware River Valley, probably Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, c. 1715. Black walnut, hard pine, Atlantic white cedar. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The upper carcase of the du Pont chest is “joined”, meaning it is not a dovetailed box. The sides consist of a mortise and tenoned frame with single pegs and thin, floating panels, flat on the exterior surface and chamfered on the inner surface, that fit into grooves on the inner edges of the frame. This type of construction was passé in London by the third quarter of the seventeenth century but continued to be employed in Delaware River Valley many decades into the eighteenth. Indeed, panel-sided furniture continued to be made alongside dovetailed carcase work throughout the eighteenth century in Southeastern Pennsylvania due to its inherent stability and strength.

The drawer sides are lapped-dovetailed to the fronts and through dovetailed at the back. The drawer bottoms are nailed up to the lower edges of the sides and backs and to rabbets in the drawer fronts. The sides of the drawers are square-topped and level with the drawer fronts. The drawer sides and backs are red gum, and the bottoms are Atlantic white cedar. Hard pine is also present, used for structural elements of the chest including the drawer rails behind the D, or single-arch, moulding on the façade. There are full dust boards in the upper carcase of the chest. The dust boards are fit to grooves in the drawer dividers at the sides and drawer dividers at the front. The thin dust boards are beveled on the bottom and sit below the level of the runners and dividers. This allows the drawer bottoms to run on just the drawer runners at the sides, not the entire surface of dust board, eliminating a substantial amount of friction. 

Lapped-dovetails at the front of a drawer. Red gum side and Atlantic white cedar bottom.
Through dovetails at the back of the drawer. Wedges are present in the pins.
Nailed up bottom of multiple 6 to 8 inch riven cedar boards that run front to back. There is virtually no shrinkage across approximately 39 inches.
The two top tier short drawers had spring locks that are now missing.
Interior of the upper carcase.

As can be seen in the images for the 2013 Pook & Pook catalogue, the lower elements of the corner legs, the full center leg and the stretchers and feet did not survive. These were later restored based on the chest-on-stand now at the PMA but at that time still in a private collection.

The tenon from the missing center leg remains in the lower rail of the stand.

All of the original inlay is intact. It is skillfully done with only small areas where the the grain of the drawer front is torn where the cutter creating the channel for the stringing had to cut across the grain. Inlaying the chest would have greatly increased the labor involved and the cost to the client. The dots in the four-dot clusters do not overlap. In this, the inlay differs from the two-part chest in the same auction, a chest of drawers in a private collection and a box at Winterthur. Clusters of four dots that do not overlap are present in the box in this auction, the Dietrich American Foundation desk, a spice chest, and the chest of drawers dated 1706.

The top of the chest is profusely inlaid with light-wood stringing, an urn, a pair of flower forms and single and clusters of four dots. The urn is identical to the urn on the slant lid of the Dietrich American Foundation desk except that it lacks two single dots at the bottom. The stringing flowing out of the urn is drawn in the same way and the flower forms are constructed similarly.

Top of the chest-on-stand.
Slant fall of the Dietrich American Foundation desk.

A remarkable aspect of the du Pont chest-on-stand is the fact that the design of the stringing inlay on the top is, as I recall, laid out in its entirety on the bottom surface of the bottom board of the upper carcase. Doodles produced with a compass or dividers are commonly found on interior surfaces of eighteenth-century furniture, whether they are inlaid or not. But I know of no other instance where a complete design has been inscribed. (The bottom of the carcase is exactly the size of the area of the top that is inlaid.) I found it impossible to photograph the design in a satisfactory way when I examined the chest at Pook & Pook, there are many scrapes and abrasions from the upper carcase being dragged on its bottom board and the lighting would need to be perfectly coordinated to produce a photographic record of the design. But it’s there, an unusual and rare survival.

Bottom of the upper carcase.
Bottom of the upper carcase flipped vertically so the design is right side up. Even with digital manipulation, most of the design is not visible. You can just make out the urn at the center, bottom.

The design on the bottom of the upper carcase was laid out with a divider or compass, that, however, is not the tool used to cut channels for the stringing. All discussions of how the curved lines seen in this type of line and dot work are produced has never been accurately described in academic or furniture history publications to my knowledge. To learn about that as a point of interest or if you want to add that as a skill in your own woodworking you’ll have to look elsewhere. That will be a topic of another post as we get closer to January’s auction of the William K. du Pont collection.

Unfortunately, none of the objects inlaid with single and clusters of four dots and spiraling stringing have a provenance beyond the twentieth century. None are signed or dated. That they may have been made in or around Philadelphia is speculation based on their form, use of secondary wood species, opulence, and cost to the consumer. (A caveat for the last two points is that wealth at this time was not necessarily concentrated in or confined to Philadelphia.) The first of these objects published, to my knowledge, was the two-part chest in Bill du Pont’s collection in the “Worldly Goods” catalogue from 1999. The latest was a spice box at Pook & Pook, Inc. in September of this year. We’ll keep looking.

12 thoughts on “A Chest-On-Stand in the Rocky Hill Collection

  1. Chris,

    Thank you again for another informative post. Bill would have been delighted to learn that his collection was stimulating such scholarship.

    As we know, John Head, who arrived in Philadelphia in 1717, styled himself a “joiner” but no piece documented or attributed to his shop was of “joined” construction.

    Although not unusual for him or any of his contemporaries doing cabinet work to style himself a “joiner,” have you further thoughts as to why he and others chose to no longer work in “joined” construction? Less time-consuming? More stable?

    Than you,

    Jay

    • Jay,

      Thanks, a very interesting object and would love to know its true origin.

      Dovetailed carcase construction allowed for the use of decorative veneers on the smooth surfaces that were created with this technique. We all benefit from Adam Bowett’s discussion of case furniture in “English Furniture 1660-1714 From Charles II to Queen Anne” (See pp. 36-39.) Dovetailed case construction was a part of joiner’s repertoire before the middle of the 17th century. Some members of the London Joiners’ Company (whence the term “Joiner”) began describing themselves as “cabinetmakers” by the 1660s. Head must have trained with a joiner who had adopted the mode of cabinetmaking and he continued to practice it himself even though he did not veneer his work, at least in Philadelphia. As the Joiners’ Company never changed its name, “joiner” continued to have a powerful connotation, a likely reason Head continued to use the term. I don’t believe Head choose to not employ “joined” construction, although perfectly capable of doing so, it would never have occurred to him to work in any other way than the training he was provided.

      Woodworkers who continued to produce joined work, whether in Britain or America, did so because that was their training. If their clients were happy to purchase joined work, there was no reason to adopt another way of working. It’s interesting, and incongruous, to view these joined chests made of seasoned wood that have up-to-date dovetailed drawers running on their bottoms, rather than side hung drawers that are nailed together. Their dovetailed drawers are made exactly like the dovetailed carcases that Head constructed. Clearly, they adapted the techniques of “cabinetmaking” in their drawers and could have done so with the carcases they made. (There’s another discussion of drawer bottoms and friction that joined construction side-stepped.)

      From a woodworking standpoint, frame and panel work has inherent benefits over dovetailed carcase work – greater stability being one. When working with riven, high moisture content wood, it is the only way to work. The technique carried over with some woodworkers who came to employ seasoned boards. It survived in places because the quasi-architectural quality it lent to various furniture forms.

      Chris

  2. Chris,

    There is one small exception to your observation that: “Head must have trained with a joiner who had adopted the mode of cabinetmaking and he continued to practice it himself even though he did not veneer his work, at least in Philadelphia.”

    The earliest chest of drawers that Head recorded in his Philadelphia account book was veneered: “To a feneared Chest of Drawers,” on May 22, 1718, debited to James Poultis, at £8-0-0. I otherwise agree that no other piece of veneered furniture is described in the account book and no extant work that can be documented or attributed to his shop is veneered. Perhaps, one day we’ll find that one “feneared” piece!

    In The Cabinetmaker’s Account, I discuss various reasons why Head never records another piece of veneered furniture. It is not especially curious that his first piece here was veneered. As you point out, that was what he was used to making in Britain. Our profusion of attractive primary woods, such as black walnut, was no doubt an influential factor. Extreme ranges of temperature, inhospitable to veneer adhesion, may have been another. But, I also wonder whether, by 1718, veneered furniture was considered out of fashion in Philadelphia. Have you additional thoughts in this matter?

    Jay

    • I’m familiar with the veneered chest debited to Poultis. As there is no credit for such a chest earlier in the account book we came assume Head owned it outright and hadn’t taken it in exchange. But we don’t necessarily know where it was made. Could it be the case that he brought the chest with him as both an example of what he was capable of and as to raise funds with? The question of how a cabinetmaker sets up a shop after immigrating and how they negotiate sourcing wood and other supplies is a question that hasn’t previously addressed. We don’t know what the Head family did or how they lived in the first months after arriving in Philadelphia but I find it difficult to imagine a cabinetmaker could get up to speed in several months over a winter to have produced an expensive veneered chest. Where was he working? Did he have a bench that winter? Where did the veneer come from or the seasoned wood for the carcase? And why build such a chest that no one would ever commission again?
      I’m only sure that he was making dovetailed carcases in England, I don’t know if they were veneered. As you’ve written, we don’t know where or with whom he trained. I don’t know enough about the furniture produced in and around Bury St. Edmunds to understand if, indeed, the joiners made veneered furniture. I don’t know that veneered furniture was considered out of fashion in Philadelphia by 1718. We commonly hear it was not to the the Quaker taste, there may be a great deal of truth to that.

      Furniture history throughout much of the 20th century was written by those who had no or little familiarity with the practice of craft traditions and were not makers. The story of veneer adhesion problems we’ve all read about is a canard. Cleary Boston had as harsh an environment as Philadelphia and much veneered furniture was produced there. Extreme ranges of temperature are not a problem. Extreme fluctuations in humidity can be, but that has only come into play in our modern time of central heating. In the 18th century, the humidity of an interior environment changed slowly over the seasons allowing wooden objects to gradually come to equilibrium with the ambient environment. Cabinetmakers in early 18th century Philadelphia could easily have produced veneered furniture that could withstand any environmental conditions like the cabinetmakers in Boston, London, and Paris did.

      Well, that’s mouthful and just the beginning of where we might get if those of us who have a long background working with wood and thinking about the issues you raise begin to put forth alternative ideas to the received wisdom passed down from the first half of the 20th century. There is not a presently a good forum where these issues can be discussed and addressed in a public way. How would we go about creating that?

      • Chris,

        I agree that more furniture scholarship needs to be published by those conversant first-hand with materials and construction. Those of us without such expertise or experience appreciate your taking the lead.

        Thank you for contributing your knowledge of materials to the discussion of the stability of veneers in case furniture in use in the Delaware Valley.

        Let’s continue the discussion:

        Newspaper accounts contemporary to Head relate that the Delaware froze some winters and summers were often so hot that residents occasionally dropped dead in the streets. Until reading your response, one would assume that veneers might be vulnerable to those extreme swings of temperature in ways that Head’s solid-wood furniture would not.

        Claypoole and others advertised seasoned wood and other furniture-making materials. One would have thought that Head had ready access in Philadelphia to what he needed to make a veneered chest of drawers for Poultis.

        Also, Head may not have made that piece over the winter months intervening his arrival and the account book entry the following year. Let us remember that the date of the entry was when the chest of drawers was ordered by Poultis, not necessarily when it was delivered.

        I had not previously considered that Head might have brought the veneered chest of drawers with him or otherwise acquired it before debiting it to Poultis. But, were it second-hand, the price for it seems too high, given what Head later charged for his new chests of drawers of solid walnut. Also, if, as you suggest, if Head had brought the piece with him to demonstrate what he was capable of, why had he sold it to Poultis, rather than retain it to show other prospective customers?

        I do hope others will join this discussion. Thanks again for providing this forum. I agree that arrangements need to be made to sustain and broaden these exchanges of opinion and (mostly your!) knowledge.

        Jay

  3. Chris,

    You observed: “Some members of the London Joiners’ Company (whence the term “Joiner”) began describing themselves as “cabinetmakers” by the 1660s.”

    This practice was soon taken up here. The term “Cabinetmaker” appears to have been in use from the date of Philadelphia’s first large-scale immigration. Hornor’s Blue Book, at page 3, lists three individuals, as of 1682, described as “Cabenett Makers”: Abraham Coffen, John Fellows, and Abraham Hooper. Hornor provides no citations.

    My review of the reconstructed passenger lists for the Ship Welcome and other ships of William Penn’s fleet that year revealed none of those names. See http://www.chester.pa-roots.com/misc/individual_ships_of_penn.htm; https://www.genealogybranches.com/welcome1682.html/.

    Do you know if any of these names appear in any record of freemen admitted to the city?

    Thanks,

    Jay

    • Jay, thank you for the passenger lists of the ships of Penn’s fleet. Hornor’s lack of citations continues to make his work problematic.
      No, I do not know if the names appear in records of freeman admitted to the city. It would be interesting to find a primary document that uses the term “cabinetmaker” in early Philadelphia. Time for another look at McElroy’s thesis.

  4. Dear Chris, Your articles are amazing and so clear with the photography,I have been enjoying and happily reading your articles in Proportion to the Trouble. I think your sharing knowledge is so generous and I hope it will only augment the sales. I hope Sabrina is well aware of this. We miss Willie and all his knowledge and quirks. He started me out with lending me books and using antique shows to pull like objects such as chairs together as Good Better Best. We wish you a Merry Christmas. I will pour through the catalog carefully, but with asthma, I may not make it up this year. I don’t want to catch this virus. I just want to say your articles add so much to the object and comparisons. Thank you. We wish you a warm and healthy Christmas and New Years. Let’s hope 2022 will slow down Covid and related strains. All the best, Thère

    There Fiechter

    >

    • Dear Thére,
      Thank you for your kind words and I’m so glad you are enjoying the articles. I believe sharing information is the best way now. I’m sure we all felt there was more time to have a deeper dive, especially into the line and dot inlaid objects, after our get together in 2014. Bill carried on in his quest and now here they are for all to see and think about. The collection is inspiring and I’m happy to put forth my thoughts as we get closer to January in the hope that I can add something to the catalog descriptions that will inform the future owners of these pieces. Sabrina has my photos made in 2014 at Alan’s shop and I will send them along to you.
      I’m glad you are well, and do stay that way and be safe! A Merry Christmas to you and your family. We’re all looking forward to that catalog and the excitement coming at the end of January, even with our great sense of loss of those who we will not be seeing this year.
      My very best regards,
      Chris

    • Dear Thère,

      Thanks for contributing your personal interactions with Bill. He was always generous in sharing his knowledge and passion for decorative arts. A great loss to our community.

      In lieu of egg nog this Xmas, let’s all raise Bloody Marys to his memory!

      Stay safe and be well.

      Jay

  5. Thanks so much for the pre-preview of the furniture in the duPont sale. It is so much easier to read your words and see your pictures than view it in New York. Everyone should read your first before they go to take a look or instead of risking Covid. You are footnoted in the online catalog so I hope people will find your posting..I will quote you in my after sale story.
    Lita Solis-Cohen

    • Hi Lita, thanks for reading and checking in. I’ve seen the footnotes and have talked with Eric.I’ll get a couple more up before the sale and will look forward to a hard copy of the catalogue. Good to hear from you,

      Best,
      Chris

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